Akasha is terrified of cockroaches. I caught one the size of a hamster crawling up our kitchen wall today. Good thing she’s out of town.

It’s well-known, at least among New Yorkers and those who listen to rap music from New York, that when the apocalypse comes, rats and cockroaches are going to be the only species to survive. While this might be true, the reverence in which people hold cockroaches as ultimate survivors, and the terror that roaches instill in some unhearty souls seems to me a bit silly after encountering a number of them crawling around my house.

Cockroaches have been an abstract idea for most of my life. Like black people, they were almost completely absent from the early stages of my development. The only time I recall seeing a cockroach in Wyoming was in the basement of Kentucky Friend Chicken, where I’d gone after hours with my then-girlfriend, who managed the place. The roach did not seem out of its element at all, even though it was unprecedented in my experience, simply because the rest of that restaurant was so wretched. The grease on the tile floor of the kitchen made it slippery as an ice rink, and was almost certainly responsible for the awful stench that permeated the preparation area but, by some magic of ventilation, did not seep into the dining space.

When I moved to New Orleans and embarked upon apartment scouting I received explicit instructions that I was to rent for no reason any apartment that revealed evidence of cockroach (or other) infestation. I arrived a couple weeks before Akasha, so she was coaching me by phone. After finding what I considered a dream house and coming mere pen strokes away from signing a lease before taking a second run through it and finding the corpses of a half dozen vermin in various locations throughout the premises, and then relaying this news to Akasha and having her strictly forbid me from completing the transaction, I became from that point forward acutely aware of all things cockroach-related during my renewed apartment search. I scrutinized every cranny, grilled current tenants, inquired among realtors, listened to their ruminations.

Consensus told me that the little cockroaches are way worse than the big ones, which just wander in off the street like vagabonds searching for somewhere dry and well-lit. The little ones set up shop behind your stove and swarm out when you warm it up. Their excrement, Akasha told me, is poisonous (what excrement isn’t?!). They live in your home and breed. Fortunately, I’ve only found big ones in the place we live.

The overwhelming impression I get when I see a cockroach is how dumb and unexpressive it is. Sure, it’s an insect, has a bug brain, and so forth, but I expect something as large as a mouse to tremble like one when I catch it. I get no such satisfaction. It is amusing, though, walking in on one by surprise as it sulks across the bathroom shelf and halts with embarrassing obviousness as the light comes on, acting as if I’m some tyrannosaurus who won’t see it if it doesn’t move.

One night when Mike Abu and I got drunk he started badgering me about what I thought was the fundamental difference between humans and other animals. Imagining that no answer I gave would be the correct one to his inebriated philosophy, I sheeped out a few guesses halfway prepared to defend myself, and asked him what the correct answer was. “We’re smarter than they are!” he replied.

It’s true. Of course, in the sense that we’ve become completely incapable of interacting with our environment in any manner that even resembles sustainability, we’re the most retarded animals on the planet. But at the same time, it would take millennia for even such noble and supremely intelligent species as dolphins or chimps to begin to understand the complexities of the toaster oven, much less the microchip. Sure, the insects in Starship Troopers could send their spores into space as well as humans could, but I don’t see that competition creeping up on us in real life just yet. And there is a substantial precedent of human beings who are capable of symbiosis with their environment—those just happen to be the ones we slaughter along with the beasts.

I guess what I’m getting at is that cockroaches are dumb, and nothing to be respected or feared. But how sound is that presumptuous logic, and how safely can I extend it to apply to other animals (even human ones)? Can I safely condescend other creatures because they lack my intelligence, even if they pose a potential threat? I say yes. It’s the easy impulse to fear the gangbanger with a gun, or the grizzly bear when you haven’t got one, but I firmly believe that in just about any situation there is a way to neutralize both simply by being smart enough to know the right action to take. Of course, the unconscious knowledge of instinct is likely to be at least as important in situations regarding these brutes as rational deliberation, but since humans have the capacity for both, we have an edge above other animals that might face them. As long as we humans can keep ourselves beyond the crippling scope of technology that weakens our animal instincts, we will almost certainly be able to avoid being trapped against the wall under a Tupperware, having a piece of junk mail slid beneath our feet, and being flung suddenly onto our backs into a toilet about to flush.

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